In March 2020, when the lockdown was announced in India, millions of migrant workers, including women, most of whom were part of the informal workforce, were left stranded with no food or shelter. A year later – during the second wave of the COVID-19, the most vulnerable informal workers suffered the repercussions of the crisis the most, once again.
The first lockdown etched in public memory, images of hundreds of these workers walking back to their villages, as public transport was shut, and they had no monetary or other resources to ensure a safe passage home. Official records stated that about 63 lakh migrant workers travelled through Shramik Special trains from May-August 2020. Their sudden visibility during this period, brought to the fore encumbering realities of the harshest forms of labour. Ever since, stakeholders across the ecosystem have rallied efforts to improve worker wellbeing.
A new report joint report by Godrej Properties and Dasra found that the construction sector employs the maximum number of informal workers, who are predominantly migrants. Fast-paced urbanisation and a high demand for low-skilled workforce are pull factors for this vulnerable demographic.
Construction employs maximum informal workers
Government data estimates that the sector employs 57 million workers, a total of 50 million men and 7 million women. The construction sector is also the single largest absorber of informal workers. Due to the low entry barriers for recruitment, the industry employs a large chunk of the surplus of India’s non-agricultural workforce.
The report titled ‘Inclusive By Design’ says that despite being an established industry, the knowledge on the inner workings, especially with regard to the wellbeing of its unit-level workers, remains fragmented. Industry and Government both play important yet distanced and apathetic roles for these workers.
The primary employers or industry are far removed from their on-ground realities as majority of the work is liaised out to a web of contractors and sub-contractors. The fragmented reach and accountability of the government is another overarching problem that affects their lives. Since the phenomenon of migration is interspersed so closely with their journeys across the system – it is important to layer this in while analyzing the breakpoints.
The above-mentioned facts, drawing upon official data after the first lockdown, are a clear indication that there is a severe need to ensure social protection, rights, and dignity for workers in construction. However, in the few months following the first wave of the pandemic, there have been some positive trends emerging as a harbinger of improved worker registrations and well-being.
The Ministry of Labour & Employment has developed eSHRAM portal for creating a National Database of Unorganized Workers (NDUW), which will be seeded with Aadhaar. This is the first-ever national database of unorganised workers including migrant workers, construction workers, gig and platform workers. Further, few states, like the Government of Gujarat, has also launched portals like e-Nirman, which will help construction workers avail smart cards, enabling access to a variety of welfare schemes.
What CSR can do
CSR and philanthropy have played a role in enabling scale for proven models across sectors, says the report by Godrej Properties and Dasra. At this critical juncture, funders and CSR units need to provide patient capital and expand focus to include grassroots initiatives and innovative solutions that address systemic breakpoints.
1) Boost catalytic areas: Divert CSR funds towards catalytic areas including skilling and affordable housing to create transformational change for communities in source areas and workers at destination.
2) Align with government priorities: Invest strategically in areas that match government and sectoral priorities to complement ongoing efforts.
3) Promote data collection: Fund data collection and research for policy advocacy to promote evidence generation and analysis which can strengthen the sector.
4) Foster innovative experimentation: Provide long-term risk capital to nurture innovative experiments that attempt at resolving complex systemic issues and holistically transforming the lives of vulnerable workers.
Collectives for informal workers
While the vulnerable state of the informal workers in the country, especially those in the construction sector, has been a cause of concern for a long time, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there emerged promising collective action-oriented efforts. These multi-stakeholder efforts bring together civil society, the private sector and philanthropists in a unified strategy aimed at visibilizing and solutioning for the grossly unequal treatment meted out to these workers so far.
Social Compact is a multi-stakeholder initiative aspiring for greater dignity and equity of industry engaged informal workers and their families in India and mainstream the aspiration that responsible business equals successful business. The most critical needs and vulnerabilities of the workers have been translated into six human centric outcomes spanning wages, health, safety, gender, access to entitlements and future of work. To achieve these, Dasra, alongwith core NGO partners Aajeevika Bureau and Center for Social Justice work along with corporates to take them on a journey of remedial action comprising of three steps of reflection, integration of worker well being standards into business as usual and thereafter monitoring key metrics via a dashboard.
Migrants Resilience Collaborative (MRC), an initiative of Jan Sahas, a community centric nonprofit organization, is a grassroots-led collaborative focused on ensuring safety, security, and mobility for vulnerable migrant families across India. This is being done through delivering social security entitlements, providing access to responsible recruitment, strengthening tracking, worker protections, welfare and redressal.
1. Act for Mathadi workers in Maharashtra
The term ‘Mathadi’ means a person carrying a load of material either on their head or back, to stack at the appropriate place. Mathadi workers’ engage in loading, unloading, stacking, carrying, weighing, measuring or such other works including work preparatory or incidental to such operations.
The Maharashtra Mathadi, Hamal and other Manual Workers (Regulation of Employment & Welfare) Act, 1969 was passed in response to the struggles of these thus far unprotected workers, and has gone a long way in ensuring their improved quality of life through better employment conditions and welfare provisioning.
The said Act (together with its various schemes for worker protection), is being implemented in the state through duly constituted tripartite Boards, comprising representatives of the employers, the workers and the State Government. In essence, the Board, as primary recruiter, not only ensures adequate supply of manual labour to the scheduled employments under the Act, appropriate utilisation of labour available, better overall working conditions, health, safety and welfare measures to the workers (including but not limited to contributions to provident fund, accident compensation, gratuity, bonuses, insurance, paid leave and medical benefits), but also regular payment of wages to the workers, by ensuring registration under the said Act.
2. Kerala government’s Apna Ghar project
The workforce in Kerala is characterized by a large and continually growing interstate migrant (ISM) worker population across several sectors. However, despite being significant contributors to the state’s economy and development, they are deprived of the most basic facilities of safe and economical accommodation, clean drinking water and adequate sanitation, which in turn, raise concerns of the spread of disease.
In order to combat these deficiencies, the Kerala government’s Department of Labour and Skills, through the Bhavanam Foundation Kerala, took to providing hygienic and safe hostel housing at affordable rates to ISM workers through the ‘Apna Ghar’ project – proposed to be implemented in the areas lacking suitable accommodation for migrant workers. The scheme piloted in Palakkad, can accommodate 620 male ISM workers, in a ground plus three floor hostel complex, that provides shared residential rooms with bunk beds, indoor bathrooms, toilets, kitchens, mess areas, areas to wash and dry clothes, recreational facilities., It is also equipped with systems for firefighting, rain water harvesting, diesel generator, 24 hours security and CCTV. The hope with this project is to make ISM workers feel more at home in these destination areas.